Chicken soup

Being sick this past week has reminded my of our arrival in Paris over a decade ago. The girls were 5 and 9. One of them had strep throat, but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you which one was sick. The French call that being a mère indigne. But the thing is, I had caught a lingering case of pneumonia while doing the expat marathon of shopping for apartments, schools and music teachers earlier in the month. Then I had returned to SF and spent the remaining two weeks packing. To say I was out of it would be like saying the French like cheese.

In addition to our (lack) of health, it was cold outside, with an unusual amount of snow and freezing temperatures plaguing the region and confusing our California internal thermostats. We needed chicken soup and we needed it, like, today.

It was time to buy me a bird. The challenge being that every other time I had visited Paris, I had been a sworn, devout vegetarian. I had had a hard time walking past butcher shops, much less entering them. But Mom-mode took over and I was soon in a local shop asking for a poulet.

“What kind would you like” asked the butcher.

I wasn’t sure I’d understood through my pneumonia induced haze. There were kinds of chickens? I’d had no idea. “Uhh… a dead one?” I hesitated, “and, well, maybe you could take the head off, remove the feet and do something about those feathers? Oh, and, is Madame ok?” There was a lady sniffing quietly in the background.

“Well, do you want one from Bresse, or a yellow legged or a red label?” he insisted, ignoring madame.

“I don’t know, nothing fancy, my daughter is sick and I need to make her some chicken soup.”

“Well, you should have said so, you don’t want a poulet, you want a poule!”

I was learning butcher-ese!

Suddenly Madame began to wail hysterically so I went directly to the source and asked her if everything was alright. That was when I learned that butcher’s wives can go somewhat mental when they learn that their adult son is a vegetarian, as madame had learned during lunch earlier that day.

Papa butcher carefully selected the lamest, cheapest bird he could find and started chopping as he explained that soupe au poulet wasn’t really French, that I may find all the chicken fat makes my kid feel worse instead of better, and that I really should consider making a proper vegetable soup. WOW. No wonder his son had become a vegetarian, he wasn’t exactly selling me on my dinner plans.

That evening I looked it up, there are nearly 50 different varieties of chicken in France, and each variety has its particular culinary strengths. Many countries only have one variety, the US has about a dozen, including the now famous Leghorn (bonjour Foghorn!). Only the Germans come anywhere close with 24 different breeds. Which explains so much about the French military reputation (oops, sorry that is VERY unPC)


The solution

from the book, Un Proletariat Rêve © Jean-Claude Seine

“Une seule solution, une manifestation!!!”

That is the first song my five and eight year old children learned when we moved to Paris.  No farms à la Old McDonald, or Little Piggies for this crowd, Parisian kids sing about going on strike!

Once had I finally made friends with these kids’ Moms, a pattern arose; every afternoon, around 4-ish, my phone would ring, with a harried woman asking me, “What are you making for dinner?” Nobody was calling because I have any particular skill at the stove top, they wanted fresh ideas. As a recent immigrant, I was happy to be exploring the French repertoire, excited to be cooking their beloved dishes, dishes they hadn’t thought of in ages. And I had lots of “new” ideas that were standards from my California kitchen. As time went on and I, too, started to loose inspiration, I turned to other European recipes, gleaning ideas from Greek, Italian and Spanish cooking. Then my inner Californian re-emerged and needed some heat. I quickly found supplies for Mexican, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian and just about any other spicy cuisine, maintaining my place as an inspirational source of new cooking ideas in the quartier.

With Picard, Chinatown, Passage Brady and countless other international sources, I was still full of ideas. Then, over a three week span, we moved, combining two households into one. And it was the holidays and my daughter was frantically writing college essays and my French ”mother-in-law” came to stay and wouldn’t leave, and my parents came to town and my Dad got ill and my step-son came for a visit and my brain short circuited and I could not, for the life of me figure out what to make for dinner…

Don’t you just love those humbling moments when you are finally in someone else’s shoes and can not see the forest for the trees any better than they could?

I began to realize that French women have to worry about cooking for the kids every night of the week. With long school days, plenty of homework and late dinner times, family friendly restaurants are really only family friendly on weekends. Take-out is not common and delivery is limited to Pizza Hut and bad sushi. I’d cooked nearly every day for nearly a decade and had not really noticed. Well, I was noticing now and I simply could not go on. SO, I did the French thing… I went on strike! A cooking strike! Heating, yes, but preparing, mixing, sautéing, steaming or roasting were off the negotiating table.

Here is how our family survived the month the chef lost it;
Soups. Pretty much every other night I was heating up a soup. The fish soup, Ile de Ré style from Monoprix, the Thai chicken from Picard or Covent Garden. Carrot, mushroom, and tomato soups, also from Covent Garden. Gaspacho, anyone?
I even found a few take out options that go beyond a slice of quiche from the bakery downstairs, our favorites being;
Clasico – Argentinian empanadas
Evi Evane – Great Greek
Mai Do – Bo Bun

Now I have to worry about the family striking against Mom’s cooking!

* Only one solution, protest!

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